Apple has responded to a wave of criticism of its labor practices in China by joining an industry-funded labor monitoring organization that will conduct extensive audits of factories run by Apple's Chinese manufacturing partners.
The Fair Labor Assn. audits would including the vast Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu that employ hundreds of thousands of workers, and which have been the locus of a number of worker safety problems in recent years. Last May, a fire at one of the plants killed four and injured nearly 20 workers, and in 2010, 13 Foxconn employees jumped to their deaths from factory rooftops.
“We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we’ve asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers,” Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook said in a statement. “The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports.”
After a series of articles in the New York Times pointed to troubling labor conditions at factories that make iPhones and iPads, Cook said the insinuation that Apple doesn't care about its workers was "offensive."
"Unfortunately, some people are questioning Apple's values today," Cook wrote in an e-mail to Apple employees in late January. "Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern."
The Washington, D.C.-based FLA said it will interview thousands of employees of Apple suppliers about working conditions, safety and pay. The audits will cover 90% of the factories at which Apple products are made, the group said.
The FLA is a nonprofit that relies in part on funding of its industry members, which include a number of clothing firms. Officials from Nike Inc., Adidas group and jersey-maker Russell Brands sit on the FLA’s board. Apple has now become a member of the group, which operates primarily on funding from its participating companies and universities.
In a 2009 tax filing, the organization said its revenue was $4.8 million, $3.5 million of which came from dues from member companies and organizations.
The partnership between Apple and the FLA was immediately criticized by activist groups.
"This new announcement shows the pressure is working -- more than a quarter-million people have joined our call for an ethical iPhone 5 and Apple has clearly heard us," said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, executive director of SumOfUs.org, a corporate accountability group. "But instead of actually solving the problem, they’re trying to whitewash it -- hiring a business-funded group with a long track record of serving as a corporate mouthpiece."
Update, 5:04 p.m.: Aaron Picker, a spokesman for the FLA, shared the list of member companies, located here. In an emailed statement, Pickering added added:
"FLA is completely independent, and is governed by a Board of Directors equally representing universities, civil society organizations and socially responsible companies. Companies have no say in which factories are audited, and agree to full disclosure of the findings. All FLA assessments are unannounced and the results, including all noncompliances and findings related to workers’ rights violations, are posted here: http://www.fairlabor.org/fla/go.asp?u=/pub/zTr4."